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Mandela & Ethiopia

General Tadesse Birru and Mandela

Following the news of the death of Nelson Mandela, there has been an outpouring of grief and tributes from around the world. In Ethiopia, a country that shares a historic connection with and support for the former anti-apartheid leader, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn described Mandela as a “mirror in which Africans see the past”.
Ethiopia’s national flag flew at half-mast for three consecutive days, in honor of Mandela. Many people turned out to sign a condolence book at the South African embassy in Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia’s principal opposition party, Unity for Democracy and Justice, or UDJ party, also organized a commemorative service at its headquarters to mark the death of the renowned statesman and anti-apartheid revolutionary. Attendees heard stories about Mandela, a speech from the leader and quotes that described his legacy. Former Ethiopian president and UDJ chair Negasso Gidada spoke of celebrating the man, who has sacrificed a major part of his life in prison to end the unjust system of apartheid, and to bring justice, dignity and freedom to the people of South Africa, and to the whole Africa.
Mandela had significant connections with Ethiopia, which he said has a special place in his imagination. He visited Ethiopia in July, 1990 shortly after his release from prison when he travelled to Addis for the annual Organization of African Unity Summit. Mandela thanked Ethiopia for its support for the ANC during the years of struggle and for its opposition to apartheid. That Ethiopia was one of his first overseas trips was a cause of immense national and civic pride here.
Mandela spent 27 years in apartheid prisons under charges of treason and for leaving the country illegally. That journey had taken him to meet the major freedom fighters and leaders across the African continent, including Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia who had been a strong supporter of the anti-apartheid cause and a defender of African sovereignty. Though Ethiopia once has been an isolated and a least involved country in the region, through Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule, it has made its bid for leadership in the African solidarity movement. Ethiopia’s official commitment to Africa, originating in its participation at the first conference of independent African states in Accra in 1958, became a source of inspiration for Mandela and other nationalist leaders in colonial territories. Ethiopia’s construction of the Africa Hall in Addis Ababa and its the selection as the seat of the permanent secretariat of the Organization of the African Unity in 1963 symbolized and culminated this effort.
It was in January 1962 that Mandela came to Addis and received military training from Emperor Haile Selassie’s army. The original plan was that Mandela would stay in Ethiopia for six months to undergo a full program of military instruction. On 28 June he began lessons on ‘demolitions’ and how to stage hit-and-run attacks with Lieutenant Fekadu Wakene. As he wrote in his classic 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recalls learning to use an automatic rifle and pistol and taking target practice at a shooting range. He was also taught how to make small bombs and mines. “I felt myself being moulded into a solider and began to think as a soldier thinks – a far cry from the way a politician thinks,” he writes. In order to facilitate his travels he was issued with an Ethiopian passport – in the name of David Motsamayi.
When Mandela left Ethiopia after eight weeks stay, Tadesse gave give him a semi-automatic Makarov pistol to symbolise his coming struggle. He was arrested soon after his return to South Africa and charged in what became known as Rivonia Trial in 1963. Other than the pistol, two articles were confiscated from his pocket when Mandela was apprehended: one was the memento from Emperor Haile Selassie and the other was a small photo of Ketema Yifru (who was the Ethiopian Foreign Minister at the time) which Mandela kept from his days in Ethiopia, according to former Ethiopian diplomat Ayalew Mandefro.
Madiba whose name had become a rallying call and his spirit the very essence of freedom has generously expressed his liking for Ethiopia-a land he called the birthplace of African nationalism. In Long Walk to Freedom, he lauded the heroic act of Ethiopians who said had showed formidable strength and determination in fighting the fascist Italians aggressors (1936-1941).
Revealing to his readers that he was seventeen when Mussolini attacked Ethiopia, Mandela said it was an invasion that spurred not only his hatred of that despot but of fascism in general. Hence, this country that drove the Italians away happened to be not only a source of pride for him but also a vision of what lay in the future for his own country.
Recording his feelings when he first set off for Ethiopia in the 1960′s, Mandela wrote that “Ethiopia always has a special place in my imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African. Meeting the emperor himself would be like shaking hands with history.”
In another of his book, Conversations With Myself, Mandela described the Emperor as “an impressive fellow man, man, very impressive”, after meeting him briefly in military parade in Addis Ababa. Mandela adds: “It was my first time to watch…a head of state going through the formalities.”
“And he was then giving awards…to the soldiers; everyone who had graduated got a certificate… A very fine ceremony-a very dignified chap- and he also gave medals. There (were) American military advisors… (and) groups of military advisers from various countries …And so he gave medals to these chaps too. But to see whites going to a black monarch emperor and bowing was also very interesting,” he said responding to questions from Time magazine editor, Stengel which was included in the book.
On his Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa on his way his training in the art of guerrilla warfare, Mandela was surprised to find a black pilot in the cockpit, the first he had ever seen. Mandela’s Addis Ababa base was the historic Ras hotel, located on Churchill Avenue. Today, guests of the hotel can visit the room where the legendary South African slept.
His stay in Ethiopia and other African countries allowed him to see what freedom could like in South Africa, but it also helped spread the message for what apartheid really signified for black South Africans. That was a message that continued for decades to reach—and inspire- people throughout the continent struggling for freedom and democracy.
Just as Ethiopians look back and reminisce at the strength of Mandela and the support Ethiopia gave his movement, it is important to understand the power of Mandela’s influence in Ethiopia. He was an admired figure here for decades. There is a distance education college named after Mandela, a center in Addis Ababa University in his honor and several elementary and secondary schools named after him.

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  1. shareopie
    December 20, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    Interesting how it was Ethiopia and Ethiopians who trained not just Mandela but various fighters from the ANC, the Ana Nya and other groups but it’s everyone else now that claims they were in on it too. I mean there is no ambiguity in Haileselassie I’s war against apartheid and for a free and independent African Union. His speech “…Until the philosophy…” and subsequent follow up on NBC when asked a question about what was going to happen in Africa prove beyond a shadow of a doubt he was the architect of the fight.

    His trainers(some of whom are still alive), his bodyguards etc. can admit or rebut claims as to who really trained him.

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